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State conduct commission reprimands Fort Worth judge

FORT WORTH -- County Court-at-Law Judge Brent Keis received a public warning from the State Commission on Judicial Conduct for making racially insensitive comments to a black lawyer.

In the comments, Keis suggested that descendents of slaves who survived the perilous trip from Africa were "bigger and stronger athletes because weak slaves were thrown overboard and never made it to the Americas."

The conduct commission also said Keis' "unsolicited discussion of the facts, evidence and apparent value" of the car crash case being handled by Dallas lawyer Nuru Witherspoon during a hearing created an atmosphere that was "coercive and intimidating."

Witherspoon filed a complaint with the state conduct commission last year regarding Keis' conduct during the pretrial hearing.

"Although Judge Keis insists that he did not intend his comments to be racially insensitive or offensive, it is clear that his remarks were inappropriate in the setting in which they occurred and that they could easily be misinterpreted by anyone unfamiliar with the judge," the commission said in its ruling.

His comments about the quality of Witherspoon's case also created doubts in the minds of the attorney and his clients "about the impartiality of the court regarding the merits of the case," the commission wrote.

The commission ordered Keis to complete an eight-hour course covering the topics of racial sensitivity and diversity, including the perceptions of litigants and their clients regarding comments made by and with the apparent authority of a trial judge. He is being ordered to complete the course within the next 120 days.

In a prepared statement, Keis said he was "frankly surprised at the Commission's negative view" of how he handles himself in court.

Apparently, Keis said, others "misinterpreted my attempt to engage their lawyer in an off-the-record casual conversation."

Keis made the initial comments about a year ago during a pretrial hearing. According to Witherspoon, the judge first asked about the origin of Witherspoon's first name. It is African, but Witherspoon is originally from Georgia.

Then Keis mentioned "the Middle Passage," a reference to the second leg of the trade triangle that slave ships made from Europe to Africa, from Africa to the Americas and from the Americas back to Europe. Keis told Witherspoon "that he thought slavery and the Middle Passage made my people better athletes," he wrote in his complaint to the state. "Judge Keis further stated that we are bigger and stronger athletes because weak slaves were thrown overboard and never made it to the Americas," Witherspoon wrote.

During the same courtroom session Keis also gave his standard speech about the risks of going to trial instead of settling out of court. The judge reportedly told the attorney's clients -- who are white -- that Tarrant County is made up of Republicans who think like him, and compared the risk of continuing with the case instead of settling to "bet[ting] on black." It is not Keis' first encounter with the conduct commission.

A judge since 1989, Keis was privately disciplined by the state in 2003 for violating the ethics code by appearing in ads for the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Keis appeared in his judicial robes in an ad promoting the Lay Studies Program. The ad appeared in the Star-Telegram in April 2002 and in several other publications. The ads mentioned that he was working on a master's degree in lay ministry.